LAKELAND, Fla. — Riley Greene has a history of putting on a show in Spring Training. On Thursday, he arrived for his first camp as a Tigers regular, ready to rake.
While pitchers and catchers had their second official workout of camp, Greene and other early-arriving Tigers hitters took batting practice on a back field in TigerTown. After an initial round of BP to get into a rhythm, Greene swung for the fences in his second round.
One drive after another went soaring into the sunny Florida sky — first to right field, then just to the right of the batting eye in center. A drive to left nearly hit a fan standing between the fence and the two-lane road between the Tigers complex and Lake Parker Park. Finally, Greene sent a ball midway up the batting eye in straightaway center, the clattering sound echoing back to the hitters gathered behind home plate.
It’s a reminder how much fun Greene is to watch. But it’s also what batting practice is for, and reflects a mentality he’s trying to take from practice swings into games.
“I feel like the new swing thoughts are really helping me,” Greene said earlier Thursday. “Hope it’s going to be a good year.”
“Like in golf, a lot of golfers have that one thought before they hop up to the ball,” said Greene, who has become an avid golfer over the last couple years. “Just trying to get a new feel for things. Same swing, just different thought.”
The thoughts are about what he wants to do with a pitch, and how he wants to hit it.
While Greene had a 45.2 percent hard-hit rate, placing him in the top quarter of Major League hitters last year according to Statcast, his 9.3 percent barrel rate wasn’t quite as impressive. His expected batting average and expected weighted on-base average were both around average for Major League hitters, and his expected slugging percentage was actually below average.
Greene had a good amount of quality contact, but his 56.0 percent ground-ball rate was about 12 percent above the Major League average. His average launch angle of 2.8 degrees was second-lowest among Major League hitters with at least 400 plate appearances last season, just ahead of fellow rookie Alek Thomas. It was well below the Major League average of 12.7 percent.
When Greene mentions swing thoughts, he explained, that’s what he’s thinking about.
“I took a lot away from [the ground-ball rate],” Greene said. “The swing thoughts that we’ve been working on, just [batting practice] rounds this offseason, really trying to not hit the ball on the ground, I feel like the stuff we worked on this offseason is really going to help with that. Just some mental keys to get me going and keep me on the right path.”
That doesn’t mean Greene wants to become a fly-ball machine and fall into the trap many hitters before him have encountered when chasing launch angle and home runs. He knows better than to do that in Comerica Park, even with the fences coming in.
“I never think elevate,” Greene said. “I just think line drive. Line drives will go over the fence, too. I feel like if I think elevate, I’ll really drop [the bat] and hit it straight up instead of driving it out.
“I wouldn’t say elevating the ball. I would say just keeping it off the ground.”
This Spring Training will be about putting those swing thoughts into practice in game situations, and realizing which situations give him the best opportunity.
“The fastest way to improve that is to pick better pitches to hit that you can actually do it with,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “You can’t create optimal angle off the bat on every pitch. It’s hard. You have to pick better pitches to hit, but these guys know where they do their damage, where they get their hits, where they hit the ball the hardest.
“I think everybody spends four months optimizing all of that, and then we have to get out there and realize it’s a competition. All that work that you’ve done, it becomes a reaction during the game. If it gets too robotic, it can lead a hitter down a bad path, but I like that he’s aware of it. Obviously, it’s easy to do that with no failure component [in batting practice], because you’re just doing it in a drill. We’ll see where he’s at.”